Sunday 17th December - Advent 3 - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

 Advent 3 2017 – 1 Thess. 5:16-24

+ ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’

In the year of the Lord 312 the Emperor Constantine the Great entered the city of Rome after his victory at the Milvian Bridge. Look at the back of your booklets, this entrance is shown on the Arch of Constantine in the city and was described shortly afterwards as the adventus divi, the coming of the god, the deified Emperor. The body of his enemy Maxentius was fished out of the Tiber and his head was struck off and carried on a pole in the victory parade.

Advent is the coming of the God. Epiphany is from a Greek word that also means the manifestation of a god. So the birth of Christ at Christmas is surrounded by two seasons, Advent and Epiphany which, from Latin and Greek, mean the coming of the God. In Advent we are waiting for the God; in Epiphany we rejoice in the God among us. The early Christians would have been familiar with these political celebrations of the divine Emperor and by applying them to the birth of Jesus they are subverting Imperial power. The divine Emperor Constantine himself subverted his own power by supporting Christianity. What contemporary political terms might we Christians adopt? Is Brexit the original sin of separation or is it the liberation of resurrection? You shall know it by its fruits.

But here we are, in a short Advent, waiting in hope, not for Brexit but for Jesus. In Advent we are in the church’s ante-natal unit, waiting for a birth. It’s like we are in a nativity play, waiting for Jesus to be born at Christmas. We take it very seriously but we know he was born 2000 years ago. Advent also looks far into the future, to the second coming of Jesus ‘with clouds descending’, this connects us with all of humanity as it longs for justice. We will sing about this in the offertory hymn, but we could think of the cries and longing of the Rohingya in exile in Bangladesh or generations born in Palestinian refugee camps. Advent is all about desire.   

So we live in these in-between times between Jesus’ first and final Advent. How should we live this desire? Our middle lesson, Paul writing to the Christians in Thessalonica, gives us some guidance. ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ To rejoice always is hard, but to pray without ceasing seems impossible. What about when you sleep, or eat, or are working? What about when you just can’t be bothered? But what is prayer? The obvious answer is ‘asking God for something’ – ‘give us this day our daily bread’. There is a lot of this asking in the New Testament, and when in trouble even atheists ask God for things, “O God, if you actually exist, make it a good diagnosis”. But you can’t ‘ask without ceasing’. What is prayer? It is certainly ‘talking to God’ but is there anything more?

Why is the chapel here special? Why do people like receiving communion there? Why are there always candles lit, prayer intentions left there, why do we often find people praying there? Perhaps in our church, the chapel, with its stained glass of Jesus praying, a quiet place away from the busyness of the main church, tells us of what prayer is. Reading the prayer intentions that are left, and talking to the people who come to the daily Eucharist, it is a place where all the sadness, pain and desires of our lives can be brought to meet the assurance that God loves us. When I see people sitting there during the week I wonder what is going on inside them. A French priest in the 19th century regularly saw an old peasant sitting in his church in front of the crucifix. One day he asked him what he was doing. The old man said “well, I looks at him; and he looks at me”.

Here we have an answer to the question ‘what is prayer?’ It is asking; it is talking with God; but it is also, and perhaps more so, a simple looking at God and letting down all the defensive barriers of our prickly personality to let God look at me as I really am. It is a lifting up of my heart to God, with the word ‘heart’ meaning the core of my personality, who I really am behind all the barriers. We can’t talk all the time (though we can all think of people who never stop talking) but we can keep our heart fixed on God whatever we are doing. We can pray without ceasing.

Here is an Advent challenge or a New Year’s resolution. Pick a time of the day when you won’t be disturbed. Often this is the morning before the phone and emails start, but it could be after lunch or in the evening. Five or ten minutes will do. Clear your mind of everything and focus on God, take a short phrase reflects that focus and repeat it slowly. It could be from a hymn, the Bible or something you make up. The words are not important, they are just a way of keeping the heart fixed on God and batting away distractions – like Steve Smith in the Ashes. I time myself with the alarm on my phone. Try it for a month and you will see a difference in your life – from this silent centre, the heart comes to fix on God like a compass to North and we begin to ‘pray without ceasing’.

Rejoice, give thanks and pray without ceasing and thousands around you will be saved. A very holy person once said that. There are people here in this congregation who pray like that. As we turn from building the Cornerstone Centre to using it, as we look forward to a third century in this building, I would dare to say that all our plans will fail unless we become more and more people of prayer; unless we learn to pray without ceasing.